Restricted Debate Book Review - Searching for Black Confederates: The Civil War’s Most Persistent Myth by Kevin M. Levin

Pat Young

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Searching for Black Confederates: The Civil War’s Most Persistent Myth by Kevin M. Levin published by University of North
Carolina Press (2019) Hardcover $30.00 Kindle $20.49.


The modern "Black Confederate Myth” has been widely dispersed on the internet and elsewhere. As Kevin Levin points out in his engaging new book Searching for Black Confederates, real Confederates would have been surprised to find that their descendants believed that blacks served as soldiers in the Confederate Army. They knew that a couple of hundred blacks were recruited into the army in the last days of the war and that several thousand slaves and free black men worked as servants, porters, and teamsters for the Confederate military, but real Confederates knew that there were never Black Confederate soldiers filling the ranks as combat troops.

Kevin Levin traces the origins of the Black Confederate Myth to the 1970s. The Civil Rights Movement of the decade before made continued open adherence to white supremacy untenable for Confederate heritage groups like the Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV) and prompted them to posit a de-racialized version of the Confederacy. The armed Confederate rebellion to preserve slavery was transformed into a Southern Rights Movement that had the interests of Black Southerners as much at heart as it did the rights of white slaveholders.

According to Levin, the Confederate Heritage folks:

“hoped to demonstrate that if free and enslaved black men fought in Confederate ranks, the war could not have been fought to abolish slavery. Stories of armed black men marching and fighting would make it easier for the descendants of Confederate soldiers and those who celebrate Confederate heritage to embrace their Lost Cause unapologetically without running the risk of being viewed as racially insensitive or worse.” (p. 4)

So, oddly enough, this peculiar institution of historical falsification came as a result of a desire by some descendants of white Confederates to retroactively transform their ancestors into racial egalitarians so that the descendants of enslaved people, supposedly believing that their own ancestors may have been Black Confederates, would embrace a Rainbow version of the Lost Cause! Or at least, and more promisingly, the Confederate Heritagers hoped that other whites, with a low interest in the Civil War, would allow them to continue to display Confederate Battle Flags and erect statues to Confederate heroes without thinking them racists.

While the myth was developed nearly a half-century ago to serve a specific function, many people today who believe in it, writes Levin, are completely unaware of its origins. One does not have to be a racist to believe the myth. School kids in Virginia have been taught it, and many people encounter it in Google searches while researching African American participation in the Civil War. The myth has even been repeated in museum exhibits and at National Park Service sites. Most people innocently encountering it don’t realize that for the first hundred years after the bombardment of Fort Sumter no one heard of Black Confederates.

Levin describes the active attempts to mislead the public about Black Confederates. One notorious example was the alteration of a photo of black Union soldiers into a fraudulent one of the same soldiers as Confederates!

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While some of the claims to the existence of Black Confederates have been nothing more than attempts to defraud the public, others have been based on misunderstanding of the historical record, particularly as it relates to Camp Slaves. These were slaves who were often brought with them by owners when they joined the Confederate Army. Officers and even privates used their slaves to cook, clean, and perform other menial tasks to make soldiering as much like home as possible. These men were sometimes given army surplus uniforms, the source of a small number of photos of slaves dressed in Confederate garb.

In addition to Camp Slaves, Levin writes:

“Tens of thousands of slaves were impressed by the government, often against the will of their owners, to help with the construction of earthworks around the cities of Richmond, Petersburg, and Atlanta. Slaves were also assigned to the construction and repair of rail lines and as workers in iron foundries and other factories producing war matériel. In service to the armies, thousands worked as teamsters, cooks, and musicians…But critically, none of these roles included service on the battlefield as enlisted soldiers.” (p. 4)

After the war, Camp Slaves became a vital element of the Lost Cause narrative. The image of the faithful slave comforting his dying master was found in novels and popular illustrations. Former Camp Slaves were “mascots” at Confederate veteran reunions. Camp Slaves were often the objects of humor at these gatherings and a few played along with white expectations for subservience and minstrelsy.

Levin argues that in the 1970s, the Old’Timey Camp Slave of the 1890s reunions became the heroic Black Confederate of the 1970s. The change in roles reflected the changing national view of race. Ken Burns’s Civil War series on PBS, the miniseries Roots, and the movie Glory inspired a reconsideration of race in American history by the general public and the Sons of Confederate Veterans hoped to stake a claim to the Confederacy being a moral leader on race relations!

Levin’s book tells the real story of the Camp Slaves, describes the evolution of the fairytale of the Black Confederates, and looks at its impact on how Americans understand their history. The good news, writes Levin, is that by the time of the Civil War Sesquicentennial the Myth of the Black Confederate was in decline. The National Park Service, nearly all academics, and museum professionals thoroughly rejected the claims of the Rainbow Confederates.

Overall, Levin’s book is a fine look at how limited evidence of an historical phenomenon can be transformed into a social media meme-worthy fake fact. It is a cautionary tale of the ability of a dedicated group of people with an agenda to change how hundreds of thousands of people view an historical event. It also shows the unscrupulousness of those willing to claim that a victim of slavery, one of the worst of all human rights abuses, was an armed defender of the system that enslaved himself and his family.
 
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19thGeorgia

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"As Kevin Levin points out in his engaging new book Searching for Black Confederates, real Confederates would have been surprised to find that their descendants believed that blacks served as soldiers in the Confederate Army."

“The 10th Alabama Regiment was the best in the army. This thought with all the regiments made the Southern army the best the world ever saw. In our regiment we had judges from the bench, lawyers of high rank from their offices, merchants of wealth from stores, farmers of large plantations, and numerous negroes who served through the war as privates.”
-William W. Draper (Captain and Adjutant, 10th Alabama Infantry)
Confederate Veteran, Volume 15 (1907), p.487
 

Rusk County Avengers

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Uh-huh...


While the very notion that there were legions of Black folks, and or slaves serving as combat soldiers is laughable, ole buddy boy jgoodguy started a thread where it was proven that "Black Confederates" did exist to some degree. There were probably very few, but they were there nonetheless.

Also thankyou for showing that disgusting, disgraceful, travesty of a photoshop. Its sickening someone would do such a thing, especially when there are plenty of photos of blacks in Confederate uniform. To say there was no such thing is just as much a travesty, as that photo and saying there were legions of Black Confederates. But it's no myth, however small the number.

Thank you for the review.
 
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Would Mr. Levin consider this man a myth ???

Then for me, the only myth involved is Mr. Levin's credentials as a historian. I believe he's the one promoting agendas!
 
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lupaglupa

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Thanks for the review @Pat Young. I can image it would be easy to get into the weeds on whether there were a soldiers who had African heritage who fought for the Confederacy. I don't think, based on your detailed review, that this is the point of the book. The overwhelming majority of slaves and free persons of color living in the CSA supported the Union cause. To push a narrative that a significant number of them did not, and in fact actively and willingly supported the Confederacy, is disingenuous. For modern day scholars, including those writing on this site, to look carefully at the facts and show that the actual narrative is not 100 percent one way or the other does not mean that the thesis of the book - that promotion of the idea of Black Confederate soldiers was done as part of a modern racial agenda - is wrong. Or that those scholars also promote that agenda.
 

Will Carry

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I do not know much about black soldiers in the Confederacy but I do know that white soldiers in the Union army often refused to fight along side black troops (Battle of the Crater) and I really feel like the southern boys would rather not have armed their slaves. It's just a gut feeling. It's hard to imagine what society was like back then but I would not be surprised if the Rebs made a slave an honorary private. I believe that some soldiers who brought their slaves with them had a strong bond with them. I wish I knew more.................
 

19thGeorgia

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"...promotion of the idea of Black Confederate soldiers was done as part of a modern racial agenda..."
The earliest promotion of the idea that I know of was an article in the Smithsonian magazine in 1979-
"The unlikely story of blacks who were loyal to Dixie" by Prof. J.K. Obatala.

I also found this item from 1985-
RichmondTimesDisp3feb1985.jpg
 

lupaglupa

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The earliest promotion of the idea that I know of was an article in the Smithsonian magazine in 1979-
"The unlikely story of blacks who were loyal to Dixie" by Prof. J.K. Obatala.

I also found this item from 1985-
View attachment 320724
Again, it is possible to separate scholarship on the role persons of African descent played in the Confederate Army from the promotion of an idea that the presence on such persons in some way absolves the Confederacy of racism.
 

Rusk County Avengers

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All this talk of Black folks in the Confederate Army reminds me of a joke in A Rebel War Clerk's Diary that the author had heard, that was supposedly a true story, but he couldn't vouch for sure during the Peninsula Campaign he had heard from a general at work. It went something like this:

There was an officer who brought along one of his slaves to be his manservant and take care of his baggage, and whenever camp was set up it was this slave's job to keep an eye on the officer's tent and personal property when his master was not around. During one battle the artillery shells came in, and the slave ran off for his life, leaving the officer's tent and property un-supervised. When his master came back and found him missing he was angry with his servant, and after a time his servant returned, and his master got on to him telling him "No matter what you don't leave this camp unguarded, if you EVER do it again, I'm going to chastise you!" the servant said yes sir and promised it wouldn't happen again.

Several days later, another battle occurred, and the slave stayed and guarded the camp until artillery shells flew in, exploding around him, which led to him fleeing the camp for his life, yet again. When his master returned to find him gone and the camp unguarded, he was furious, and swore up and down he was going to chastise his servant when he returned. After a few hours, the servant returned, and just as his master walked up and started to yell at him, the servant held up his hand and said "Now look here Master, I know you said you were going to chastise me, but YOU told me to protect your property!" and putting his hand over his chest continued "And this property is worth five hundred dollars!"

His master dropped the matter and didn't chastise him...

I'm running off a long memory with that period joke, so may have some wording wrong, I think it's time I re-read that book. Even though its a joke, it offers a picture of Southern mentality and the relationship between slave and slave-owner. It's kind of funny to me.
 
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Again, it is possible to separate scholarship on the role persons of African descent played in the Confederate Army from the promotion of an idea that the presence on such persons in some way absolves the Confederacy of racism.
Not if we begin by describing that "role" and those persons as a "Persistent Myth".
 

archieclement

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Uh-huh...


While the very notion that there were legions of Black folks, and or slaves serving as combat soldiers is laughable, ole buddy boy jgoodguy started a thread where it was proven that "Black Confederates" did exist to some degree. There were probably very few, but they were there nonetheless.

Also thankyou for showing that disgusting, disgraceful, travesty of a photoshop. Its sickening someone would do such a thing, especially when there are plenty of photos of blacks in Confederate uniform. To say there was no such thing is just as much a travesty, as that photo and saying there were legions of Black Confederates. But it's no myth, however small the number.

Thank you for the review.
I found this curious as well......" Most people innocently encountering it don’t realize that for the first hundred years after the bombardment of Fort Sumter no one heard of Black Confederates." Is Levins "scholarship" so sloppy he is unaware of reunion attendance and newspaper interviews gave well within the first 100 years?"

Does Levin think people didn't read newspapers for a 100 years..................or is his "scholarship" so sloppy he is actually unaware of reunion attendance and newspaper interviews gave by participants? As well something that existed, even if in limited numbers, is hardly a myth........another curious choice of wording
 
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Andersonh1

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I found this curious as well......" Most people innocently encountering it don’t realize that for the first hundred years after the bombardment of Fort Sumter no one heard of Black Confederates." Is Levins "scholarship" so sloppy he is unaware of reunion attendance and newspaper interviews gave well within the first 100 years?"
I have plenty of newspaper stories from the late 1800s and early 1900s where northern and southern newspapers alike refer to former slaves, cooks, teamsters, et. al as "soldiers" and "veterans". I think people were very aware of who these black southerners were and what they had done during the war, but it doesn't fit Levin's agenda so if he's aware of these reports, he discounts them, because it's very clear that the idea of "black Confederates" pre-dates the 1970s.
 

archieclement

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I suppose this contradiction is Pat and not Levin

Overall, Levin’s book is a fine look at how limited evidence of an historical phenomenon can be transformed into a social media meme-worthy fake fact.
Either something is a historical phenomenon....(which means it did exist) or a myth (it didnt exist).......but they sure ain't synonymous, its one or the other.....not both

If your saying you believe there is limited evidence it existed as a phenomenon.......then its not a myth but a actual historical phenomenon......
 

Pat Young

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I suppose this contradiction is Pat and not Levin



Either something is a historical phenomenon....(which means it did exist) or a myth (it didnt exist).......but they sure ain't synonymous, its one or the other.....not both

If your saying you believe there is limited evidence it existed as a phenomenon.......then its not a myth but a actual historical phenomenon......
I don’t think you understand what the word myth means.
 

archieclement

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I don’t think you understand what the word myth means.
a widely held but false belief or idea.

If something existed, its not false.......

Levin saying something didn't exist, that did no matter how limited, however would be a myth, and a false belief or idea. Think I understand the definition fine
 

Dead Parrott

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Having not read this particular book, I can't comment on it specifically.

Any careful analysis can get lost in the multiple dishonest attempts to use exceptions to pretend the war wasn't about slavery.

Some Lost Cause Mythologists point to a picture of a black man with a musket and pull the "See? It wasn't about slavery!" nonsense.
Kinda like a racist who says "why, some of my best friends..................".

That hurts serious scholarship around the exceptions - and understand, they ARE exceptions - uncovered by careful research, and the interesting nuances which they add to our understanding of that period of our history.

The attempt to make the exceptions seem the rule is dishonest. The attempt to use them to claim the war wasn't about slavery is pathetic.

Cleburne is shaking his head at them all from beyond his grave.
 


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